Mongolia is using its newly exploited mineral wealth to reform its social services. While the government should be applauded for looking to the future, it is a challenge ensuring the changes don’t come at the expense of the majority of people in this vast and rural country. Mongolia’s unique population structure creates especially difficult conditions for schools, which are frequently over-crowded in the capital, Ulaanbaatar, but must accommodate sparse and highly dispersed populations elsewhere.
Mongolia’s approach to education reform appears to be quite similar to efforts in Kazakhstan, another natural resource-rich Central Asian state. Both countries are working with prestigious Cambridge University to develop a small network of elite schools that will serve the most academically successful students in the capital city and regional centers. The goal seems to be to develop schools to match their elite counterparts in developed countries quickly—a sort of superficial European renovation for the education system. Both countries also envision the good teaching practices that Cambridge consultants help develop and implement to trickle down to the rest of the education system.
Kyrgyzstan has joined the 153 countries that have signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. During the signing ceremony in New York on September 21, President Roza Otunbayeva emphasized her country’s commitment to building a tolerant society that respects the rights of all citizens. While parliament must still ratify the motion, which would give the Convention the strength of law, Otunbayeva’s move is important for acknowledging the right of disabled people to full participation in society.
Disability in Kyrgyzstan, like the rest of Central Asia, is stigmatizing. Children with disabilities like cerebral palsy or Down’s syndrome are often sent to institutions to be ‘rehabilitated,’ as though a disability were a crime or a contagion. Others are kept at home in isolation. Having a disabled child in the family can negatively affect other siblings’ marriage prospects, as the family is considered tainted by misfortune.
Thanks to the public advocacy efforts of local non-governmental organizations as well as disabled people themselves, these attitudes are beginning to shift. The right of access to public services -- like education, health, and transportation -- for people with disabilities is increasingly included in policy discussions in Kyrgyzstan. However, the danger is ever-present that disability rights will be seen as a niche issue, the subject of charity, or the last luxury to consider when all other problems have been solved.
But retrofitting is always messy. If we do not build rights for all into the policy process from the beginning, there will always be an excuse for exclusion.
In Kyrgyzstan, where memories of last June’s ethnic violence are still raw, children’s futures risk being entangled in a flourishing nationalist impulse. As the country attempts to move beyond the tragedy, some officials are increasingly calling for education solely in the state language, Kyrgyz. Such a move risks not only hurting the development of minority children, but Kyrgyz kids as well.
Language is a delicate element of education policy across Central Asia, where newly independent nations understandably want to embrace their ancestral tongues and explore their identities. Education in the “titular” language is an important aspect to nation building. But high-quality learning materials in the region’s languages are in short supply. Sometimes provoking resentment, Russian-language schools, with better access to textbooks and an older generation of Soviet-trained teachers, provide better education.
The region is full of minorities. They make up approximately 30 percent of Kyrgyzstan’s population. Studies show that children whose native language is not the language of school instruction need educational support in their mother tongue to fully develop literacy and writing skills in the language of instruction. Without such support, minority language students are at a significant disadvantage that can lead to dropout and limited employment opportunities later in life. In schools without alternative languages, though, kids from the majority are hurt, too, cut off from news, information, and professional development opportunities in languages other than Kyrgyz – languages such as the regional lingua franca, Russian.